Wearing long johns under ski pants and a thick parka, I feel like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Which would be fine if I were preparing to bomb down a Colorado mountain on a snowboard. But I’m in Hawai’i, where the temperature at my ocean-view condo at 8 a.m. was 82 degrees F.
I might look puffy, but I’m glad for the extra layers, bundled against the 60 mph winds trying to sweep me off the 14,000-foot peak of Hawai’i’s Mauna Kea volcano. Here above the clouds I can see to the back of beyond, and farther still.
I tear my eyes from the view at the top of the world and look closer to see a field of alien-looking satellite dishes, gleaming research stations, and a handful of cars slowly making their way up the dirt road we just navigated in our 4x4. Some people depart in the dark of night in order to make it up for the sunrise; we took the path of lesser resistance and left at 8 a.m. instead — driving 14,000 feet up a mostly unpaved, unlit road is too much adventure for me.
Ask 100 residents of Hawai’i what they love most about the island, and you’ll get 100 different answers. “Every day is a new adventure,” says photographer, dive buddy and personal guide to the island, Masa Ushioda, who moved to the Big Island 12 years ago. “My favorite day was snowboarding Mauna Kea in the morning, followed by snorkeling a reef in the afternoon while being serenaded by singing whales.”
Sadly I can’t re-create his favorite day — I see snow on the ground, but certainly not enough to snowboard on, and humpback season is nearly at an end — so I’ll have to create my own. Thankfully I’ve got 10 more days and an island full of amazing adventures to try.
The Critter Whisperer
You can’t miss Keri Key. Even though a light rain is falling this morning, she’s clearly the happiest one to be here. “My husband jokes that the only reason we bought the company was to satisfy my need for diving,” says the owner of Kona Diving Company.
Her voice lifts with excitement as she gives the briefing for the first of two morning dives, at Old Airport. The briefing includes cowfish, the gloomy nudibranch, a manta that “sometimes passes by at the end” and a critter that really gets her passions stoked: a male flame wrasse. “They’ve been showing off lately,” she says of the wrasse, opening her thumb and forefinger less than an inch to show off the size of the objet du jour.
Masa and I follow her down — she’s not hard to miss, wearing (purposely) mismatched fins and a colorful nudibranch hat — to a spot at 100 feet, where two male flame wrasse are showing off for a harem of females. I stay with one male who flares his bright-red fins, and then we move on to the cowfish, which is right where she said it’d be in a patch of rubble. We head shallower to a big lava formation covered in hard corals. There she finds a gloomy nudibranch against the bright hard coral it’s perched on. I’m on the line starting my safety stop when another divemaster starts banging his tank: It’s a “smallish manta,” just passing by.
On the second dive, at Devil’s Doorway, Key’s skills shine again. She tells us to expect schools of fish, in particular opportunistic raccoon butterflyfish and yellow tangs. These fish follow divers, which scare away sergeant majors from protecting their eggs. The fish then crowd in and start eating at the purple buffet.
Not five minutes into the dive, and we encounter the behavior exactly as she described. Masa and I swim near a pile of rocks covered in purple eggs, and the raccoons, yellow tangs, trumpetfish and wrasse swarm. After a few minutes of this, we head down toward the point, where pyramid butterflyfish are schooling in the blue.
I like to leave a little room for spontaneity in any trip, and it pays off big time that afternoon when we discover the 49th-annual Kona Stampede Rodeo. Just a 40-minute drive away, we enter another world: children running around with neon-pink lassos, and paniolos — Hawaiian cowboys — sporting 10-gallon hats. I’m the only haole among a wonderful diaspora of native Hawaiians. Masa is like a kid in a candy store photographing the scene as it plays out in this small rodeo ground in a grove of trees. “I’ve been in Kona 12 years, and I never knew this existed.”
The world’s greatest night dive is underrated. I discover this truth during the first five minutes on a site I’ve waited 20 years to dive. Here’s a secret you might not know, though: It’s the buildup to the Kona mantas that’s almost as good as the dive itself (but not quite).
As the sun dies and we began our briefing — which includes the rules for the encounters, and what to expect — aboard the expansive Kona Honu Divers’ boat deck, I watch as a handful of other boats unloads rectangular rafts bristling with snorkelers wearing different-colored lights. The snorkelers’ exclamations as the first mantas appear build to a crescendo, and the wild colors and excited chatter from the divers on the other 10 dive-only boats — it’s crowded by now — give the bay a carnival atmosphere. Two mantas appear off the dive boat’s stern, attracted to a bright-blue light attached to the ladder.
I’m one of the first of our group into the water, and as I swim to the Campfire — a collection of rocks encircling a campfire-like pit where a giant bank of lights is placed — I can see a few mantas have already begun eating in front of a few other divers. I get myself settled onto a rock and do as I was told: Point my light upward to attract the plankton, which attracts the mantas. The mantas come almost immediately, pointing directly at me and gulping up planktony goodness before banking upward at the last second.
As the rest of the divers arrive, I notice that I’m in the middle of the larger circle. I swim to the outside, next to Masa, who has bigger camera lights, and so, more plankton. He keeps getting passes from Big Bertha and Lefty, a large female with a paralyzed left cephalic fin. Despite the black sky indicating it’s night, this is hardly a proper night dive with all the lights shining down from the rafts above and the 50 divers below shining up. Mantas barrel-roll near the surface, where a several-thousands-strong school of silvery Hawaiian flagtails gathers to feed.
Toward the end of the dive, I find myself off to the edge of the group. My camera is out of battery, so I content myself by just watching. I point my light upward, quickly cultivating handfuls of plankton that gather in the beam. The plankton attract one manta, which swoops above my head again and again, barrel-rolling in the glow of my light, brushing my head with its belly. I am down for 50 minutes but could go another 50.
“The great thing about the mantas is that they’re not seasonal,” says Taiki Sakai, a divemaster with Kona Honu. “It’s amazing to think that something like this can happen every night, and yet every night is different with new mantas, old friends and mating behavior.” He gives us the final tally for our dive: 14 mantas, split evenly among male and female. He’s even managed to ID all 14; there’s Lefty’s name, as well as Big Bertha’s.
There is talk among the operators of regulating the manta night dive — to make it safer for the people and safer for the mantas — and they’ve already drafted a list of best practices. It’s a tough call: more boats, more people; more people, more lights; more lights, more plankton; more plankton, more mantas. And despite all the people, I always felt like I was getting personal attention from the mantas in the world’s greatest night dive — a title that’s challenged one night later.
It’s Dark Down There
“Don’t look off into the distance; you’ll just scare yourself,” says Matthew D’Avella, divemaster for Jack’s Diving Locker’s Pelagic Magic dive. Along with the mantas and lava tubes, this one-tank trip 3 miles offshore, drifting 30 feet below the surface in water that is more than a mile deep — in the dead of night — has become one of Kona’s signature dives.
“We come across animals that defy comprehension,” says D’Avella in his 30-minute briefing, rolling off a slideshow of amazing animals on his iPad. “Once you get in, take a good look at all that’s around you. Everything’s alive.”
The ride out isn’t as long as I expect, but it still gives me time to question what the heck I’m doing. I’ve been diving for 25 years, and while new experiences don’t come along too often, this one is spooky.
I’m the first one to jump in and turn on my light, only to realize that my single, lonesome beam isn’t doing much good in this dark abyss. (Fun fact from D’Avella: If you drop your light and it sinks at 200 feet per minute, it takes about half an hour to get to the bottom.) I wasn’t prepared for how dark it is down here, and I temporarily forget D’Avella’s advice: Focus only on what’s close.
It takes a minute for me to settle in, and once the other six divers are in, I grow bolder, straining against the weighted line that tethers me to the boat, wanting to explore more of the inky void. I shouldn’t worry, as everything is attracted to my light and comes to me.
Each minute is something new: an animal that looks like a glowing dandelion, a dreamcatcher, a tiny flatfish D’Avella later identifies as a pelagic nudibranch. I see fish so oddly shaped that no imagination could dream them up, translucent shrimp and a juvenile crab the size of a pencil eraser that attaches to my finger. So many microscopic animals, they look like tiny spaceships floating in a galaxy of stars.
After the dive, everyone’s trying to describe what he just saw to everyone else. It’s the most excited I’ve been after a dive since, well, the night before with the mantas. Each animal was new and different to the three “Pelagic Magic virgins”: fluorescent squid, Venus girdles, tiny crabs. Jack’s Diving Locker owner Jeff Leicher, who never misses a Pelagic Magic dive — or any day dive for that matter; he’s got close to 20,000 — even gets in on the fun. Never at a loss for words, the Stanford grad is tongue-tied trying to describe the new animal he saw, before he sits down and gives up. “All I’ll say is it was a good night.”
It’s fitting that a trip featuring tropical snow, Hawaiian cowboys and a critter whisperer ends with Pelagic Magic, a challenger to the mantas’ title of World’s Greatest Night Dive. Was it, though? I’ll take the easy way out, and just call it a tie.
A New Generation
After five pleasantly exhausting days in Hawai’i, my wife and two young daughters join me for a week of vacation. And for one week, we barnstorm along the west coast in search of family adventures. We’re not disappointed as we snorkel the reefs of Mauna Lani and ride horses in Kohala, gobble poke at Da Poke Shack, and dance the hula at Huggo’s on the Rocks.
On the final day, we hop on a cruise down to Kealakekua Bay, where we snorkel above pristine hard corals to the tune of dolphin clicks. On the ride back, my daughters see humpback whales and bottlenose and spinner dolphins for the first time in their lives. My children are young and prone to exaggeration, but after the dolphin encounter, my oldest looks up at me and says: “Thanks, Dad. This was my favorite day ever.”
Special thanks to SunQuest Vacations for a view worth coming home to, and to Jack’s Diving Locker, Kona Diving Company, Kona Honu Divers, and Mauna Lani Sea Adventures for the diving adventures of a lifetime.
Plan your own trip and check out the photos in our Diver's Guide to Big Island Diving.